Tuesday, November 9, 2010

James Baldwin, Teen Writer

by Stephen J. Gertz

A national treasure.

In the Spring of 1941, sixteen year-old James Baldwin made his debut as a published writer.

Raised in Harlem, his mother was married to a man with whom Baldwin had a tumultuous relationship; his home life was difficult. He was inculcated with a strong sense of religion; from age fourteen through sixteen he was a preacher in a small revivalist church. He attended New York’s prestigious DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx and contributed to Magpie, the school’s student-published literary magazine. Magpie’s editor-in-chief was a kid who would become one of Baldwin’s life-long friends, Richard Avedon, pre-camera, and with literary ambitions of his own.

In these stories and poems we hear Baldwin celebrating Blackness yet struggling with his own, and religion, racism, his conscience, and his desperate desire to give voice to the emotions roiling within himself. It's a voice that already is clear and knows what it wants to say and how to say it.

Winter 1941, Vol XXV, No. 1

To the Winter 1941 issue of Magpie Baldwin contributed two poems, and a six-scene play illustrated by Harold Altman, who would go on to a distinguished career as an illustrator and graphic artist.

Winter 1941, Vol XXV, No. 1, p. 28.

These Two
By James Baldwin
Winter 1941, Vol. XXV, No. 1, p. 19.

A Play in Six Scenes

Etching by Harold Altman.

Scene 1.—A cold wet alley about serve A.M. Day is just breaking. We hear the swish and patter of heavy rain. Drunkard stumbles into alley. He is completely intoxicated.

DRUNKARD—Gosh . . . shure ish dark . . . (He stumbles over something and mutters inaudible curses.) Wha'sh devil . . . deshent man can't even git home peashful. (He stumbles again and falls.) Well I'll be . . . ish two men . . . heyT wake up. Hey! wake up . . . ish rainin' . . . (He attempts to lift one body which is lying atop the other. Suddenly he lets it drop, recoils yells.) Hey! They're dead—dead. (He stumbles to the mouth of the alley). Moider! Moider! Help, police! (We hear windows slammed up.) Moider! Moider!

(Now we hear voices from the windows.) "Hey! What's all the racket down there? . . . What's wrong? . . . Shut up down there!"

DRUNKARD—Ish two dead men down here! Moider! (And he is off again)...

In the same issue Avedon contributed two poems and three humor pieces.

From Not England by Richard Avedon, p. 34.

...These are the words I write. 

This is the twisted song I sing 

Till I am hoarse with it. 

These are the words that wring 

My every dream into a nightmare...

"There was a boy."

A friend of mine. 

There was a boy." 

Beaten on my brain, 

"There was a boy."

No, no, I can not mourn that England's churches 

Have been burnt away, 
Or England's charm, or England's years of grace.

I can not turn but what I see the face, 

With clear eyes and a blond head, 

Of an English boy I knew. 

The boy is dead.

Spring 1941, Vol XXV,  No. 2

In the Spring 1941 issue of Magpie Baldwin contributed two poems and three stories, “A Woman at the Well,” “Incident in London,” and “Mississippi Legend.”

Judgment Day
By James Baldwin
The Magpie, Spring 1941, Vol. XXV, No. 2, p. 6.

Dey tells me dat on Judgment Day
In some udder clime,
I'se "wine hate to gib account

Ob mah earthly time.

Dey tells me dat, if I drink gin,
Lie, o' steal, o' fight,
I ain't gwine neber be allowed

To walk in Jesus' light.

Dem as tells me all dese things
Goes to church on Sunday,

From dey shoulders sproutin' wings,

Shootin' crap on Monday.

No, I neber managed yet

To git real good religion;

Don't know why I didn't—
'Twarn't fer lack o' teachin'.

Guess I'se jes' a sinner,

Bound to go to Hell—
Jes' de same I'se kinder glad—
Shootin' crap is swell!

From The Woman at the Well
By James Baldwin
The Magpie, Spring 1941, Vol. XXV, No. 2, p. 26.

Illustration by Bernard Bier

"Oh Lawd I want..."

Jeems walked along the hot, dusty road, heart alive with song. His faded blue dungarees flapped in the still, oppressive air. Rivulets of water ran down the dusky cheeks gathering under his chin to form large, hesitant beads. The rough, wooly hair glistened in the sunlight; the eyes, large and eager, surveyed the world peacefully from beneath the shining, heavy brows. Under one forearm he carried a Bible.

"Two wings . . ."

Dog, but he was tired! It was a long journey, the way he was going. He had been travelling all day, and though he had often made the journey before, this time it seemed slower than usual.

"Dis rate I'll jes' git to de church Sunday mo'nin' in time to walk right in an' preach," he grumbled. 

"Won't hate time to wash or nothin'." This was immediately followed by the consoling thought: "It doan matter so long's dey git de Word; Eben Jesus was ragged sometime." Heaven and earth contained no greater honor than to do as Jesus might have done...

From Mississippi Legend
By James Baldwin
The Magpie, Spring 1941, Vol. XXV, No. 2, p. 42.

It was Annie Simpson as tol' me this here story, an' I ain't a-sayin' as it's the truth or a lie. Annie Simpson's a real respectable woman, an' she ain't got no cause to lie to me. I been knowin' her all my life an' she's one o' the sweetest chillun I know.

Annie used to live down on a farm in Mississippi. 'Twant her farm, but she used to work it on a sharecroppin' basis—you know, that means she was workin' for somebody else an' givin' them half o' the crops at the end o' the year.

Annie says that everybody down there was real religious, but she says she never seen a woman as religious as Mattie Jones before. She says Mattie was so blame holy that she wouldn't even straighten her hair, or light her stove on Sunday. Said Sunday was a day of rest an' that folks oughtn't to do no work atall on that day. On Sundays Mattie went to church real early in the mornin' an' stayed there all day, singin' an' shoutin' an' praisin' God. Sometimes she stayed there till way early Monday mornin'. Annie says she was as pious as anybody, but she couldn't never stay there that long. She says she had to get some sleep some time. Anyway, Mattie was always the leader in somethin' like that...

Winter 1942, Vol XXVI, No. 1

And from Magpie winter 1942, a powerful poem of a lynching and lost love by the magazine's new editor, a seventeen year-old with a deep, old soul:

Black Girl Shouting
By James Baldwin
The Magpie, Winter 1942, Vol. XXVI, No. 1, p. 32.

Stomp my feet 

An' clap my han's 

Angels comin' 
To dese fair lan's.

Cut my lover
Off dat tree! 

Angels comin' 

To set me free.

Glory, glory,
To de Lamb 

Blessed Jesus 

Where's my man?

Black girl, whirl
Your torn, red dress 

Black girl, hide 
Your bitterness.

Black girl, stretch
Your mouth so wide. 

None will guess 
The way he died

Turned your heart
To quivering mud 

While your lover's 

Soft, red blood

Stained the scowling
Outraged tree. 

Angels come 

To cut him free!

Baldwin was a haunted artist, struggling inside, desperate to break the fetters of his background, shed the negro skin he was born into and fashion a new black one, and burst the barricades of his conscience.

By James Baldwin
The Magpie, Winter 1942, Vol.. XXVI, No. 1, p. 32.

Go away and let me rest in peace 

Thou restless, ruthless, ever-searching Mind. 

Why is it that you come, and never cease 

To tear apart each refuge that I find? 
I had thought that I could come and hide 

Far from the bitter battle fray 

But you have come and waked the country-side 

And put an end to my complacent day.

Tell me, may I never hope to see 

Some blessed refuge from the bruising rain? 

I thought that this was it, and I would be 

Forever sheltered from this roving Brain. 

But now I must depart—my peace is o'er 
For you have forced my barricaded door.

In the following, Baldwin has heard the calling, has seen his future, knows his path, and what he must do.

Loose Stone Rolling
By James Baldwin
The Magpie, Winter 1942, Vol. XXVI, No. 1, p. 47.

I am called and I must go 

Through this wild and blinding snow 

Ease this pain within my breast 
Plunging through the wilderness.

Not for me the sheltered cave 

Or the drab and solid rock 
I must up and be away
Far beyond the ordered flock.

Upon high school graduation, James Baldwin moved far beyond his ordered flock to Greenwich Village and began his career as a writer  in earnest. The fire next time was now, he told it on the mountain, and he burned oh so brightly.

Cover images of Magpie, and of the poem Paradise courtesy of Between the Covers, which is currently offering these three scarce issues of Magpie for $2,250.

Accompanying illustrations by Altman and Bier courtesy of The Magpie Sings the Great Depression, which has a complete list of Magpie writers and illustrators, 1929-1942, and selections from Magpie's content here.

1 comment:

  1. It was reading James Baldwin's books that helped me through my early 20s - a difficult time. I can remember how, with great pleasure, I went to bed early just to read his books - I bought them all. I followed Baldwin with Genet. The late 60s and early 70s were great years for unexpurgated literature and there was none of that "inappropriate" nonsense we hear nowadays.


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